My companion at the end of the movie There Will be Blood remarked “Now what do you make of that?” I too was a trifle baffled at the story and the message. A rather contradictory character starts out in New Mexico mining silver or is it gold, but finds oil. Great shots of hard-core mining practices by the small-time 18th century miners. Enough to make your heart beat with pride. Until they blow things up and workers die. But the technical incompetence and death is all rather neutral and low key.
The story could be that of a modern Vancouver mining junior: find an ore body, struggle to get it started, get interrupted by accidents and local politics, have the majors go after you and your find, and ultimately sell for a fortune to retire to a mansion in British Properties.
Except in this case it is not a gold deposit in Costa Rica but oil in California at the turn of the 1900s. The movie is based on a book by Upton Sinclair, who no doubt was attacking private enterprise, business, capitalism, and the like when he wrote the book. The movie cannot get away from Sinclair’s original intent of attacking the practices of the resource development industries. The movie makers try, however, to add in a bit of 20th century human interest by focusing on the kid, the priest, and a pseudo-brother. But the movie still reeks heavily of the unsavory practices of juniors stretching their abilities to develop a find and make a buck. Even though his community relations is excellent.
We all like Hamlet because he is a contradictory character trying to find himself in a sea of deceit and death. Much as I admired the movies’ miner/oil developer’s success in the face of the odds, I was appalled by the practices he needed to implement to succeed. He is no Hamlet; just a flawed human being who uses others to his end. In one small scene, we learn he is motivated by hatred, plain and simple. No grand notions of sustainable development here. As my companion pointed out, he is mad. But that is flimsy stuff to base a movie on; particularly if you cannot decide to tell the story of one human, or to attack the practices of the resource development industries.
In the end the movie succeeds because of great acting, great scenes, and a bloody story of flawed humans–at least we come away feeling “we are better than they are.” It succeeds for the same reason that good opera succeeds: tell of the folly of gods and kings and queens. We all like to see that those above us are more flawed that we are, even if luck or skill or madness makes then richer or more powerful. And ultimately we glory in the downfall of the wicked, be they priest or miner.